The Haifa District Court ruled on Monday, in response to a petition from environmental group Adam Teva V'Din, that the Dead Sea Works cannot continue to pump water from the sea to their industrial ponds without receiving water production licenses from the government that limits the quantities that may be pumped.
The level of the Dead Sea is receding at a rate of about one meter (3 feet) per year, but there are contradictory assessments regarding the company’s relative contribution to the dropped levels.
The Dead Sea Works pumps water from the Dead Sea based on a franchise law, which enables the company to use all the resources of the sea and surrounding streams. The plants pump about 200 to 300 million cubic meters of water to industrial evaporation ponds, from which they extract minerals they use for their manufacturing processes. The surplus is then returned to the sea - about one third to one half of the amount that was pumped.
For the past four years, Adam Teva V’din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, has been waging a legal battle to require the government to limit the amounts of water pumped from the Dead Sea by means of licenses, as done under the law to protect other water sources. The Dead Sea Works opposed this requirement, claiming that the Dead Sea is not similar to other water sources. Another argument made was that the franchise law overrides the Water Law. The Dead Sea Works and the Water Authority also said they had recently reached an agreement regarding the quantities of water that may be pumped and that this deal eliminated the need for a license.
In Monday's decision, Judge Ron Sokol ruled that the guidelines in the agreement between the Water Authority and the Dead Sea Works are insufficient, and found that pumping should be limited by means of licenses. He wrote that neither the Water Authority nor the industrial plants had shown him the agreement they reached, nor did they explain the commitments that the Dead Sea Works had undertaken or how the authorities would ensure that these commitments were met.
Sokol said that the Water Law applies to the Dead Sea as well, and rejected the argument that the franchise law overrides it. He said that the production license is meant to guarantee that water resources will not be harmed, and restricting pumping quantities would enable the authorities to guarantee that, since a substantial percentage of the pumped water is not returned to the sea.
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The judge also noted that the Water Authority's response to the court suggested how for many years it has taken no interest in the activities of the Dead Sea Works, and that apparently it started to show an interest only in the wake of the legal action taken by Adam Teva V’Din.
The environmental group requested in the petition that the licenses obtained by the Dead Sea Works contain conditions to prevent the continued drop in the Dead Sea's levels, including a guarantee that they would use more efficient and economical pumping technologies. The judge rejected this request, leaving it up to the Water Authority to make its own decisions about licensing. According to the verdict, the permit must be published within half a year.
“Our goal is to prevent the continued depletion of the Dead Sea,” said attorney Lihi Goldenberg. “The license gives the government a tool to do so, whereas until now the plants pumped almost without restrictions. If the government doesn’t take steps to prevent the depletion of the sea in the context of the license conditions, we will consider an additional legal action.”
The Water Authority said in response: “Out of a desire to reach understanding with the Dead Sea Works, after they claimed for years that they are not subject to the Water Law, the plants were made subject to the requirements that were presented, including a maximum quantity for production, the installation in stages of means for measuring, and reporting on quantities. So that in regulatory terms, the instructions touch on all the issues in need of regularization in the context of the license, as well. The authority is studying the most recent ruling. Its opinion is that the Water Law applies to the above-mentioned activity and that this production requires a license.”
The Dead Sea Works has said previously that the company’s franchise enables it to use, according to its needs, all the resources of the sea and its surrounding streams.